So, I recently offered my book for free for 5 days at Amazon. And here’s what happened.
But first, a little history lesson.
A few years ago, the term “Self-publishing” meant bad. Self-publishing was the last resort of the author who couldn’t get traction from real publishing houses in New York. It often meant you were dealing with a scam artist outfit like Publish America. (No link. Don’t even do a web search on them. They’re crap.)
Self-publishing’s bad reputation is why, when my friend Rob read my book years ago and told me to put it up on Amazon, I wouldn’t.
In 2008 or 2009, the ways of self-publishing changed, due to one entity: Amazon. Amazon introduced the Kindle, and it introduced the Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP. It became easy to publish your book online and actually have a viable career publishing your own work, without going through New York. Not just for the Hugh Howeys and Amanda Hockings, but for lots and lots of writers. If you want to read a great thread by authors talking about how well they’re doing, read this thread started by Hugh Howey and eventually turned into an article he wrote for Salon. There are lots of writers having lots of levels of success out there.
In December 2011, as part of their bid to become THE place for authors to have their books, Amazon introduced the Kindle Digital Publishing Select program. For 90 days, you agree to make your book exclusively available digitally to Amazon (you can still offer the paperback version elsewhere), and in return Amazon offers you five days when you can offer your book for free, plus entry in the “Kindle Online Lending Library,” or KOLL, which means that people can borrow your book (if they belong to Amazon Prime and if they have a Kindle e-reader).
In early 2012, KDP Select had some tremendous effects. Authors would offer their books for free, have tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of downloads, and then when the book came off of its free days, KDP would interpret the free downloads as buys and that book would pop up on the Paid book list, basically immediately becoming bestsellers. Then lots and lots of people would buy the books (for actual money), and a lot of authors started paying off their mortgages.
In March 2012, KDP changed the algorithm and free sales only counted for a fraction of a paid sale. The change was felt immediately — free books got a boost right out of the gate, but the book probably wouldn’t be as high on the charts as it would have been before the change.
Lots of authors suspect Amazon has changed the algorithms again recently, to make the transition from Free to Paid even less useful, but Amazon claims that it only changed the formula once, in March. It’s just that there are so many more books that are available for free now, the signal-to-noise ratio has made things harder.
A lot of authors on boards or mailing lists I frequent say they don’t think Select is worth the exclusivity any more — the money they make from KOLL borrows (roughly $2 per book, which is great if your book costs $2.99 or less, but it’s less money than you would get for a sale if your book costs more) doesn’t make up for the money lost on other digital bookstores, such as iTunes/iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble, because those bookstores are increasing in visibility and sales.
When the Free bonanza started and authors started talking about how much money they were making as a result, I thought they were nuts. Here’s why: I like getting ebooks, and getting ebooks for free is even better. When the Great Free Gold Rush was on, I downloaded a crap ton of books, often by authors whose names I recognized. I downloaded a huge number of books, even knowing that I wasn’t particularly interested in them right them.
I didn’t read them. I didn’t do anything with them. I stored them on my Kindle. Whenever I paid for a book, I immediately read it. The free ones could wait.
When an author made a ton of their books available for free, what I learned was: this author will eventually offer all of their books for free. If I had a lot of free books by that author, I stopped even considering buying something from them. I had a lot of ebooks on my Kindle. I could wait.
Also, a ton of those free books were just as bad as everyone said they were. Wow. I haven’t bothered going through my Kindle to clean it up but…yeah. Not good.
Now, clearly, this was not the universal experience of the authors who were offering their books. Often they found that if they offered one book for free, the sales of all their other books picked up as a result. People were downloading their books, liking what they found, and returning for more, this time with money in hand. In fact, so many authors discovered the power of giving one away for free they found a way around Amazon’s no-free restriction.
Amazon doesn’t offer the ability to set your book’s price to Free to anyone except members of KDP Select, and that’s only 5 days out of every 90. However, it also says that you can’t offer your book at other vendors for a lower price than you offer it at Amazon, and other vendors (such as iTunes/iBooks) do allow you to offer your book for free. So authors very quickly figured out how to offer their books for permafree: they would set them to a price of zero elsewhere and then get Amazon to price-match. Sometimes Amazon price-matches, sometimes it doesn’t.
The extra bonus to permafree is: Amazon crosses out the price you’ve set on Amazon and writes $0.00 below it — making it look as though the buyer is getting a particular deal that day. And people like getting deals.
In March 2013, Amazon made a huge change to the ecosystem that has sprung up around selling things on Amazon. I don’t even think all of the effects from this have been completely understood yet.
Amazon Affiliates make money by getting people to buy things at Amazon with the Affiliates’ tag attached to the URL for that thing. The customer buys, the Affiliate gets a cut of the sale for referring the customer. The fun part was, when someone went to Amazon to check out something with the Affiliates’ tag attached, that tag stayed operational for some time afterward. So if a customer went to check out a free book, and then stayed at Amazon to buy a lawnmower, the Affiliate got a cut of the sale of the non-free merchandise.
Lots of people were making bank with this system. They had sites offering links to free books on Amazon, and then customers would buy lots of other stuff that actually cost money, and the Affiliate raked in the proceeds.
Amazon said, “Yeah, enough of that crap,” and tightened the rules, hard.
Starting March 1, 2013, Associates who we determine are promoting primarily free Kindle eBooks and meet both conditions below for a given month will not be eligible for any advertising fees for that month within the Amazon Associates Program. This change will not affect advertising fees earned prior to March 1, 2013.
1. At least 80% of all Kindle eBooks ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links are free Kindle eBooks
2. 20,000 or more free Kindle eBooks are ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links.
Sites that had invested heavily in featuring free books to their customers stopped doing so, cold. Even if they offered links to paid books, if their Affiliates tag was used to download too many free books, the Affiliate would lose all of their Affiliate money.
Offering your book for free and letting people know about it just became that much harder.
Knowing all of this, why, if I only had one book up in the Amazon bookstore, did I make You Know Who I Am free for 5 days? It wasn’t like I was going to spur anyone on to buying Book 2, which is, as of yet, not available.
Well, it’s true: offering it for free when I had more than one book available would have been a great promotion. But by the time I have multiple books up there, I’m not planning on being in KDP Select. I did it for this first 90 days so that I could learn the system. (For example, it turns out I had to tweak a few things in the ebook and re-upload the book to Amazon a couple of times. On other bookstores — Kobo, for example — you lose your entire sales history if you re-upload. Lots of authors roll their eyes at what a stupid system Kobo has.)
I know how fast I write: it’s going to take me a bit to get multiple books up on the stores. I’m not staying in Select for that long.
What do I need even more than money at this point?
I need people to read the damn thing. And beyond that, I need them to review it.
Before I put my book up, I had zero idea of how important reviews are. Reviews convince other readers someone has read that book. (Or bought that app. Or watched that movie. Whatever.) They’re absolutely necessary to get advertising through the most effective advertisers for books. One place that has phenomenal results for the books it features won’t even talk to you if you have fewer than 10 reviews. They have so many writers trying to advertise with them that they might as well get the biggest bang for their buck and pick the books that their clients are likely to buy, and it’s easiest to tell that via the reviews for the book.
If enough people downloaded my book, I was betting that some percentage of them would read it, and an even smaller percentage of those would review it. The rule of thumb someone mentioned was: 1 review for every 100 purchases. Might be a much greater ratio with free books.
When I put You Know Who I Am up for free, I advertised the sale through ebookbooster.com (which sends out your announcement to places still featuring free books, because they make their money in other ways) and I asked people on a mailing list I’m on to tweet about it. I tweeted it a couple of times.
Results: worldwide, over 5 days, I gave away 14,400 copies of the book. This is nothing compared to the results some authors have reported, but it got me into the Top 100 of Free books, and people look through that list all the time. (If your book gets into the Top Ten Free bestseller list, you’re giving away many tens of thousands of books.)
The first few days of the sale and afterward, I have gotten some of those reviews that I needed, and it was clear that the reviewers had read the book. (Priceless: A review where it’s clear the reviewer has actually read the book. Thank you thank you thank you thank you!)
The book has also sold better afterward than it did before (there’s been a rather stark contrast, in fact), although I have zero idea how people are finding it now. I’m really glad people are finding it, of course. And lots of people seem to be enjoying it enough to leave enthusiastic reviews, for which I am profoundly grateful!
One fun moment happened when I made to the top of the Women Sleuths sublist. Me and Uncle James, together again!
(Just so we’re clear: to the best of my knowledge, I have no kinship to James Patterson. If I did, I would have done something to announce this relationship, such as “buy France.” I’m just happy he’s blazed the trail for having a 5-letter first name plus Patterson on the front of a book.)
So, am I going to make You Know Who I Am free again, any time soon?
For one thing, I’m going to leave KDP Select in May 2013, to see if (like some, though certainly not all authors) I can make some money and get some visibility on the other bookstores. (The main ones are iTunes/iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble.) While Amazon is still the Big Kahuna for English-language authors, the other ones are coming on strong.
Although, from what I’ve read about iTunes/iBooks even before my book’s available there, I have a laundry list of changes I’d like to see them make. Let’s start with iTunes Producer, the software you need to upload your books to iTunes. I would like to start by burning this software to the ground and salting the earth afterward.
And Kobo, seriously: up the search game on your site. And make it possible for authors to change material in their books without losing their entire sales history.
If I do get into the permafree game and offer the book for free, that’ll be after I have 3 or 4 books in the Drusilla Thorne series up, and I know how long that’s going to take. That will be a while.